Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Historical Value of Sherlock Holmes

There's a modern-day televised re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes bouncing its way about the airwaves. Having seen a bit over half of one episode, I must say I cannot entirely dismiss it. It seems expertly made, if still oriented of course toward mass-appeal. Still, I cannot tolerate watching an entirely gratuitous modernization. There is no excuse to pander to the public's moronic ineptitude at placing itself in historical context or interpreting the values of days past. Sherlock Homes exists in a Victorian setting, and that's final. If you'd like to make a show about a modern-day detective sharing all of Holmes' antisocial, addiction-prone, arrogant quirks, then by all means, call him whatever else you like. In fact, that's last decade's news and likely served as the proof-of-concept for reviving Holmes himself. Against all odds, the beer-swilling deadhead television audience accepted such an intellectual protagonist. However, the purchase of copyrights for simple name-brand recognition constantly degrades our cultural reservoir. The masses must be taught to value past works, not wallow in their ethnocentrism and outright ignorance. I once met a thirty-year-old man who thought the Roman and British empires had coexisted.

But of course that value does not include any delusions about the unimpeachability of such works. Dickensian serialized novels are full of filler, Shakespeare pandered to contemporary English politics and Sherlock Holmes stories... are not an intellectual tour de force. To experience the original work, as we should, is to also experience its flaws.

For one thing, it's been remarked that Sherlock Holmes stories don't share the careful and convoluted mazes of suspicion of modern-day whodunits. The solutions hinge on gimmickry which the public was never meant to discern. A snake on a string? Gimme a break. Early examples of any genre will often share this apparent dissociation from it, simply by virtue of being less formulaic. It takes some time for extraneous features to get pruned away from core expectations, to condense from the Comedy of Errors to Seinfeld. Frankenstein is not Star Trek, nor is The Lord of the Rings, elves and goblins aside, Dungeons and Dragons

It is overall striking just how little a part of Sherlock tales the detective work plays. Doyle was selling cheap thrills to the growing number of bored, sheltered parvenus of the British Empire. He makes a great deal of the oddity of the growing subsection of intellectuals devoted to science instead of philosophy or literature (Sherlock and Mycroft specifically) much as he did with Professor Challenger in The Lost World. Even more importantly, Doyle supplied a constant stream of exotic tidbits from current or former British colonies, like say... a mongoose (it's like a weasel, but bigger) or maybe outlandish cults with nigh-supernatural powers like the KKK or those most romantic and alien of alien mystics ... Mormons!
Displaying the ridiculousness of the novelty value of such gimmicks to Victorians would go a long way toward counteracting today's public's dependence on its own exotic fads.

Then there are the many small references to social progress. One would think that if American and British audiences were truly interested in their politically correct causes, they might want a little glimpse of just how a turn-of-the-last-century author treated such issues as racial segregation, the worth of women or jingoism and imperial expansion.
Come on. I'm pretty sure Cumberbatch and Freeman could just as easily have played a period piece. In fact we already know Freeman can. What were hobbits but quaint Edwardian villagers?

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